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PLATO Computer Learning System 50th Anniversary

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Uploaded on Jun 9, 2010

[Recorded: June 2, 2010]
Science fiction writer William Gibson once famously said, "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed." Such was the case in the early 1970s, when the fourth generation of the PLATO system, evolving since 1960 at the University of Illinois, made its debut. Viewed from today, it is hard to believe that the PLATO IV system could have existed when it did: Terminals with touch-sensitive, gas-plasma flat-panel displays, random-access audio, built-in color microfiche projectors and a powerful authoring language for developing nearly any kind of program imaginable.

PLATO was a centralized, mainframe-based system, with very sophisticated terminals connected to it. Its mission was to deliver education electronically at low cost. But it became much, much more than that. It quickly became home to a diverse online community that represented a microcosm of today's online world.

Much of what we take for granted in today's hyper-active, always-on world of social media, blogs, and addictive computer games could be applied to what life was like on the PLATO system beginning in the mid-1970s.

PLATO, an acronym standing for "Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations," started as a project of the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory (CSL) at the University of Illinois in 1960. The original goal was to build on the mechanical "teaching machine" work of B.F. Skinner and instead see if it was possible to build a computer that could teach. In time they discovered not only was the answer yes, but computers could be extremely effective, and economically viable, at teaching large segments of the population.

In the 1970s, Control Data Corporation entered into a series of agreements with the University of Illinois to commercialize the PLATO system and bring it to the marketplace. The result was a great expansion of PLATO throughout the U.S. and the world, with systems installed in Canada, France, Belgium, Israel, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Fifty years on, PLATO has left its imprint across a wide range of computing activities, from e-learning to social media, from online multiplayer games to major hardware and software innovations. In this lecture, Brian Dear, founder of the PLATO History Foundation presents an overview of PLATO's history. Then Dr. Donald Bitzer, creator of PLATO and co-inventor of the flat-panel gas plasma display, and Microsoft's Ray Ozzie (who got his start on PLATO at the University of Illinois) discuss the history and impact of PLATO with John Markoff of the New York Times.

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